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God Save the Queen

On 6 February 1952, King George VI of England died in his sleep. At the time, the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip were in Kenya on the first stage of a Commonwealth tour, staying at the now famous Treetops Lodge.  The Royal entourage heard the news on the radio; and it was left to Prince Philip to break the news to his wife that she was now the Queen.

As I heard the story from Dad, a commercial DC3 was cleared for the Royal Party; because of bad weather, they rendezvoused with the Royal aircraft, a BOAC Argonaut, at Entebbe on the 7th, and the new Queen was flown home, together with a few key members of her party.  

However, as Royals do, she had travelled with a Household - ladies-in-waiting, gold-plated teacups, the works - and somebody had to go and fetch the remainder of the party. (I suspect they were left behind because of the difficulty of getting everybody to Entebbe in bad weather, and the need to get the Queen home as fast as possible, but this will need more research).

As frequently happened, VIP trips ended up being given to 24 Squadron, the so-called 'Commonwealth' Squadron. As Dad told it, the Wing Commander meandered into the briefing room, peered round, lighted on Dad and said "Ew, Bawnawd, yew're frum Effrika, yew'd better ger..."

Clearly, the lucky accident of having been born in the Eastern Cape was thought to give Dad a much better chance than average of finding Mombasa in the dark.

And so, on 7th February 1952, Hastings 491, with Dad and a Flt Lt Stafford alternating as 1st Pilot, took off from RAF Topcliffe.  Destination: Kenya.

The logistics of the trip were difficult.  They needed to get there and back in a hurry, the weather was bad, making navigation by starsight difficult, and Africa had few navigation beacons in that era.  It's not clear from the log book (Dad's were a tad messy) what time they left, but it would appear to have been shortly after lunch, as the first leg, from Topcliffe to El Adem in Libya, consisted of 2 hours 45 minutes of daylight flying and another 10 hours of night flying. It seems as though El Adem was just a refueling stop; after another 6 hours and 15 minutes of night flying, making a total of 19 hours flat out, they reached Mombasa, presumably in the early hours of the 8th of February.

Finding Mombasa wasn't entirely straightforward, either, something which is hard to appreciate in today's world of sophisticated computerised satellite navigation systems.  Dad recalled setting the heading from El Adem and then keeping going on instruments, with almost zero visibility and several fairly large mountains around.  At one point he asked the navigator, "Where are we?", to which the navigator replied, "Somewhere over Africa, Sir."

They missed a few fairly vital landmarks because of poor visibility, spotted one of the last ones because of a lucky break in cloud cover, and were able to make the correct course change for Mombasa and find the radio beacon.

The log of the Kenya flight. One of the interesting things about this is that it is in a South African Air Force log book. Dad had just started using this log book when he was demobbed from the SAAF at the end of WWII. After being offered and accepting a commission in the RAF, he simply carried on using the same log book.

The trip home was a little gentler, although it must have been hell on the already exhausted crew, as they left Mombasa on the 8th, with a very short turnaround time, and headed straight for Wadi Seidna in the Sudan, arriving at night again going by the hours (4 hours 10 minutes of daylight flying and 4 of night flying.)


On the 9th, Dad took a break for the 1st leg (from Wadi Seidna to Castel Benito in Libya) and then took over again to fly them back to London, again doing the last leg in the dark.  And from London, they could at last return to base at Topcliffe, after three days of non-stop flying.



For more about RAF 24 Squadron, you can visit the 24 Squadron Association site here.